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Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine seeks to incentivize coronavirus vaccines with chance to win $1 million

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R), seen in 2019. “I know that some may say, ‘DeWine, you’re crazy!’” he said about his million-dollar lottery plan to encourage vaccinations, “but truly, the real waste … is a life lost to covid-19.” (John Minchillo/AP)
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As demand for the coronavirus vaccine plateaus, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine is giving state residents a shot to win $1 million.

The Republican governor announced Wednesday night that vaccinated adults will be eligible to enter a lottery that will pay out $1 million each to five winners beginning May 26. Separately, DeWine is offering five vaccinated teenagers full-ride scholarships to the state’s public universities, which includes all four years of tuition, room, board and textbooks.

“I know that some may say, ‘DeWine, you’re crazy! This million-dollar drawing idea of yours is a waste of money.’ But truly, the real waste at this point in the pandemic — when the vaccine is readily available to anyone who wants it — is a life lost to covid-19,” DeWine said in a statewide address.

This move by Ohio mirrors what other states have done to spur skeptical or complacent residents to get vaccinated, but with a bigger enticement. Other states and cities have offered free beer. West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, a Republican, wanted to give every vaccinated resident between the ages of 16 and 35 a $100 savings bond.

That program would cost the state about $27.5 million compared with the $5 million Ohio plans to invest in five adults.

DeWine said the lottery payout will be funded using federal coronavirus relief money. States and localities have been given wide discretion by the Treasury Department in spending that aid.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki reiterated that Thursday when asked about DeWine’s plan, saying that the administration is leaving it up to state and local leaders “to take new creative approaches to getting more shots and arms.”

“The Department of Treasury has comprehensive guidelines, but does not typically opine on each individual program or creative approach by different states,” she said.

Flu-like symptoms are an expected side effect from second doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna coronavirus vaccines. (Video: John Farrell/The Washington Post)

Public health experts have mixed feelings about the effectiveness of incentive programs to encourage vaccinations.

Tara Smith, professor of epidemiology at Kent State University, said there’s some research to suggest that small financial incentives can boost vaccine rates but was unsure whether DeWine’s lottery plan would work.

“For some who have been apathetic, it could be the push they need to just go and get it. I think incentives can help. I’m just not sure five $1 million prizes are better than, say, a one-in-five chance at a $100 check,” Smith said. “I hope someone did the research on that before they announced it.”

Robert Bednarczyk, an assistant professor at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health, agreed that incentive programs could result in a small bump in the number of people getting vaccinated, but he was doubtful it would provide the kind of substantial shift needed.

“These types of incentives can work in the short term, especially for people who are accepting of vaccinations but need a little more of a nudge to actually go to get vaccinated,” he said. “This is likely not going to have a large impact for people who do not have a large amount of confidence in the vaccine already.”

Earlier this week, DeWine was among a bipartisan group of six governors that met with President Biden to discuss ways to encourage more Americans to get vaccinated as the nation’s vaccination rate has fallen significantly from just a month ago, when there was still huge demand.

During that conversation, DeWine did not mention incentives, but it did come up with other governors on the call. Maine Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, told the president that state residents getting their first shots between now and Memorial Day can receive a voucher for items such as a free fishing license or hunting license or L.L. Bean gift card.

Biden was supportive.

“The idea of engaging in and offering benefits … my guess is that’s probably going to work,” Biden said.

“I think so,” Mills said. “We’re offering a great spectrum of things, and I think it’ll be an incentive to those who still may be still hesitant.”

Jeanne Marrazzo, an expert in infectious diseases at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, said at this point the country needs to “pull out all the stops,” like incentive programs, to get people vaccinated if there’s any hope of achieving herd immunity from the coronavirus.

“At the risk of sounding alarmist,” she said, “people need to realize that this can still go bad in so many ways.”